Spain: Land Of Rioja

Now that staterooms are filling up for our Mediterranean Wine Cruise, I'm starting to look into the ports we'll explore. Our adventure begins (and comes to a conclusion) in Barcelona, noted for Gaudi's architecture, the art of Dali and Miro, and great food! I've never visited Spain, and look forward to dining there as some of my favorite restaurants in California feature Spanish tapas. We covered Spain in my Culinary Arts class, so here are some notes on the culinary history and traditions of Spain:

Situated between the rest of Europe, Italy and Northern Africa, Spain is at the crossroads of many cultures; her food reflects the diversity of influences that have ebbed and flowed throughout history. Around 200 B.C., the Holy Roman Empire annexed Spain, introducing garlic, wheat, olives and grapes, which are now integral to Spanish cuisine. Spain is the third largest wine producer in the world. Fortified wines such as port and sherry are historically well known, with Rioja, Tempranillo and Monastrell growing in international popularity. Cava is Spain's sparkling wine made in the Champagne style, but with native grapes suited to the sunnier climate: Macabeo, Parellada and Xarello, instead of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes.

In 711 A.D., Moors crossed the Mediterranean Sea (just 9 miles at the shortest distance) from North Africa to began their conquest, bringing oranges, lemons, almonds, dates, raisins, rice, eggplant, figs, nutmeg, saffron, honey and olive oil. Spanish foods that show the Moorish influence include cumin chicken, sopa de ajo (garlic soup) and polvorones (almond cookies). In the 1400s, explorers from the New World brought tomato, corn, potato, sweet peppers and chocolate. Tomatoes are essential in contemporary Spanish cooking--and celebrating! The Tomatina Festival in Buñol, Valencia turns the town into one big blob of tomato puree with a 'food fight' involving 40,000 people and 110 tons of tomatoes. Sofrito is a lovely condiment to have on hand. A mixture of tomatoes, garlic and onion, it can be eaten with breads and soups as well as form the base for stews and sauces (see recipe below).

In the early years, Spanish shepherds and nomads cooked over a fire in a single pot, braising meat and vegetables. Before modern prosperity, livestock was tough from hard-scrabble existence in the dry interior lands, so slow cooking was imperative for softening the meat. With over 3,000 miles of coastline, fresh seafood has always been readily available. Paella is a good example of a one pot rice dish, prepared with saffron, seafood, meats, chicken, sausage and peas. It derives from Valencia, on the eastern coast, where rice dishes predominate.Spain can be roughly divided into four principal regions of cuisine. The Culinary Institute of America has a terrific interactive map of Spain. Galicia, in the northwest corner of the country, is known for simple, fresh food using local produce and seafood. Empanadas hail from Galicia. In the northeast is the Basque region which shares a border with France. The terrain is mountainous with wild game and mushrooms. The Basque area is known for delicious sauces. Its neighbor Catalonia, to the south of the Basque area and on the coast, is home to what some critics say is the best restaurant in the world: three star El Bulli. The central part of Spain is a hot, dry expanse and the most common food is the olla podrida or stewed casserole. The eastern coast is Valencia, which is lush with citrus, olives and grapes.Countless types of paella can be found here. Tapas are ubiquitous--small plates of food, eaten as a snack, appetizer or as a meal when there are several plates served. According to “The Joy Of Cooking”, the name comes from the old habit of covering the top of a wine glass with a slice of meat (tapas comes from the word “tapar” meaning “to cover”). In any event, tapas are a culinary treat—small, lovely tastes of different foods usually served with Spanish sherry. Some examples would be grilled anchovies, small empanadas or fried potatoes topped with an egg. You can read some tapas recipes here or on my blog: Eggplant Tapas and Rustic Empanadas.

3/4 cup olive oil
3 cups onions, minced
1 teaspoon sugar
10 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped fine (retain the juices)
1 teaspoon Spanish smoked paprika
2 to 3 bay leaves
1+ teaspoon salt
Heat the oil in a heavy saucepan over low and add the onions. Caramelize the onions: cook over low heat (so they do not brown) for 1/2 hour, stirring occasionally. Add the sugar and cook another 15 minutes, stirring occasionally until the onions are tender and a very light golden brown. You may have to add a few teaspoons of water to keep them moist. Add the tomato, paprika, and bay leaves and increase the heat until the mixture is just below a boil, then turn down the heat and cook another 15 minutes over low, stirring occasionally. Remove the bay leaves, add salt to taste. Serve warm or store in a covered glass container in the refrigerator. The sofrito will taste even better as the flavors develop and will keep for 4-5 days in the refrigerator.

The following recipe was created for a Touring and Tasting potluck and is being posted due to popular demand. It's a richly flavored, satisfying soup that can be a meal with a salad, bread and cheese and a lovely glass of the 2009 Oxford Landing Merlot.
4 Tbsp. olive oil
4 cloves garlic minced
1 cup sliced onion
1 tsp. curry powder
1 Tbsp. garam marsala
8 cups vegetable or chicken broth
1 bay leaf
1 potato, peeled and cut in small 1/2" cubes
2 carrots, peeled and cut in small 1/2" cubes
1 cup washed and drained red lentils
1 4 oz. can tomato puree
3 cups (6 oz package) fresh spinach, chopped
1/4 cup uncooked quinoa
2 tsp. salt
In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium low heat and cook the garlic and onion for 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the curry powder and garam masala and cook another minute. Add the broth, bay leaf, potato, carrots, lentils, and tomato puree. Raise the temperature until the soup boils, then turn to low and simmer for 1/2 hour. Add the spinach, quinoa and salt and cook another ten minutes or until the vegetables are soft. Serve with a Merlot, like the succulent, fruit-forward 2009 Oxford Landing Merlot, which is part of this week's Online Grapevine special.
Serves 4.

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